The biggest concern for Manchester United fans this season, barring fears over a disturbingly slow start to their Premier League title defence campaign under David Moyes, has been a lack of creativity in the middle of the park.
It seems to be a worry shared by the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, who spent the summer chasing after the likes of Luka Modric, Cesc Fabregas and Ander Herrera to no avail as he seeks a long-term replacement for playmaking maestro Paul Scholes.
And indeed, it’s hard to argue that United haven’t missed the retired midfielder in the early stages of the season – unlocking opposition defences via the ball has been the Red Devils’ biggest curse going forward.
But amid all this talk of whether the Premier League champions should have gone for Mesut Ozil, bidded more for Herrera or left Marouane Fellaini at Everton, I believe Manchester United’s biggest creative flaw has been disturbingly overlooked.
Throughout Sir Alex Ferguson’s prestigious tenure at Old Trafford, his sides, that he continually designed, deconstructed, recycled and renewed over his 27 year spell, have always been trademarked by world-class wide men. Over the years, the Red Devils have possessed an illustrious cast of wingers, including the likes of Bryan Robson, Andrei Kanchelskis, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.
But taking a look at the Red Devils’ current batch of wide men – most notably, Luis Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young – and quite frankly, they just don’t cut the mustard.
Valencia was once a seven-goal per season man, by no means a prolific total but thoroughly backed-up by his undying energy, work-rate and defensive contribution. Now however, he looks more like a right-back than a right-winger, being incredibly uncomfortable on the ball and rarely putting his speed and stamina to good use going forward.
Ashley Young‘s Manchester United career can be annotated best by the amount of penalties he wins – or at least tries to win – per season, which by now must undoubtedly outweigh his goal tally of just eight in the space of three years; a disturbing deviation from his nine-per-year average at Aston Villa, which earned him an £18millon move to Old Trafford in 2011.
And amid all the confusion in the last 12 months over whether Nani should be staying with the Red Devils or thrown on the transfer scrap-heap, which has seen him make just 11 Premier League starts over the course of the last two seasons, the Portuguese has become a shadow of his former self. Prior to the winger’s regular exclusion during Ferguson’s final campaign, he had reached double figures for two consecutive seasons, so it’s understandable that Nani’s confidence, and subsequently his performances, have been at an all time low from summer 2012 onwards.
United’s back-up options aren’t much to write home about either. The occasional inclusion of Ryan Giggs based on his prestige, reputation and experience, often serves as much as a burden as it does an asset. We haven’t seen the unblooded Wilfried Zaha at all since he officially arrived at Old Trafford in the summer, and for whatever reason, David Moyes is simply not interested in the potentially world-class services of Shinji Kagawa.
Granted, the Premier League has moved on since the good old days of 4-4-2, where established quality on the flanks was essential for any outfit who considered themselves as title contenders. Even at Manchester United, where wingers have continually underpinned their successes over the years, the impetus has recently transitioned to the creative efforts of Wayne Rooney in a central role at the tip of midfield, as well as the control of possession by Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes in the middle of the park.
But for all of the United icon’s world-class quality on the ball, he made just 17 Premier League appearances last season, with very few coming in heavyweight encounters, and the Red Devils still strolled their way to the English title. Similarly, Carrick was amongst Europe’s most successful forward passers last year, statistically at least, and still remains an integral figure in United’s first XI.
At the same time, wide play is an integral part of the Red Devils’ typically English identity, that should be embraced and used positively rather than shied away from. Just look at the pivotal impact teenage prodigy Adnan Januzaj had from the left flank at the weekend, by recording a stunning brace against Sunderland that proved to be the determining factor in United claiming all three points.
That’s the difference a winger of the highest quality could make at Old Trafford, and despite all the furore over whether or not Marouane Fellaini solves Manchester United’s long-term issues in the middle of the park, I’d suggest David Moyes turns his attentions to sourcing a world-class wide man in January.
Admittedly, prolific wingers are hardly in hot supply, although at this point it’s worth pondering why the Red Devils never entertained the prospect of making a formal bid for the talismanic Gareth Bale, who not only fits the United mould but would also have undoubtedly tipped the odds of retaining the Premier League title in their favour through his individual influence.
But there are still some out there, Real Madrid’s Angel Di Maria for example, who could be searching for a new home in the next transfer window if he sees his playing time reduced in favour of Los Blancos’ new £86million man. Wesley Sneijder is also a highly versatile and readily available option, having reportedly been on the hunt for pastures new in the summer despite only joining Galatasaray in January.
Either way, it’s time to address Manchester United’s lack of creativity in the middle of the park as an issue for the whole midfield department, not just those who operate in central roles. Talent on the flanks has been the Red Devils’ biggest asset over the years, and a major contributor in their continual success. Now however, it’s become their most intrinsic flaw, and one Moyes needs to arrest in the next transfer window.
Are Manchester United’s wingers to blame for their lack of creativity?
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